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Orbital ‘littering’ fee might solve our space junk problem

Where humans go, trash isn’t too far behind — and that includes space, too. In fact, space junk is a growing problem that may make it impossible to launch things beyond Earth’s atmosphere if we don’t do something about it. A new study is proposing an innovative solution: charge a fee for every satellite put into orbit.

An orbital space tax

Since we began sending satellites into space in the late 1950s, human activity has been leaving behind trash with every launch. Every major world power has contributed to this growing space junk problem.

NASA is monitoring some of the biggest pieces of debris out there, including approximately 20,000 objects as big or bigger than a baseball and 50,000 objects as big as a marble. Smaller pieces of debris, however, are virtually undetectable right now, but NASA estimates there are millions of objects that are 50 microns to 1 millimeter in diameter.

That might not seem like such a big deal but consider that these tiny pieces of debris travel at 17,500 miles per hour. At these velocities, even an object with a tiny mass can exert a powerful kinetic energy capable of significant damage upon impact.

Below you can see what a tiny speck of space debris did to the super-reinforced glass of the International Space Station’s Cupola — if you had any doubt this isn’t serious business. Now, imagine the kind of damage a larger object can do. A person on Earth even got hit by a piece of space debris in 1997.

This isn’t a crack on a car’s windshield, but 7-mm chip in diameter in one of the windows of the ISS’ Cupola — the dreamy vantage point which astronauts use to take amazing pictures. It was caused by “possibly a paint flake or small metal fragment no bigger than a few thousandths of a millimetre across,” ESA wrote. Credit: ESA.

Most proposals for decluttering Earth’s low-orbit have focused on technology, such as giant collecting nets, janitorial satellites with harpoons, even Earth-based giant lasers.

The Tragedy of the Commons (in space)

Matthew Burgess is not a space engineer but rather an economist — yet his take on cleaning up Earth’s low-orbit may be more impactful than any fancy technology.

In a new study, Burgess, who is an economist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and colleagues suggest charging satellite operators and other agents involved in launching stuff into orbit an annual fee.

The reasoning behind this idea is that space is a common resource and, despite its name, it is not limitless — not in the amount of junk we can safely dispose of in orbit, at least. This is similar to how we (should) tax carbon in order to account for the negative externalities of fossil fuels in the environment.

“Space is a common resource, but companies aren’t accounting for the cost their satellites impose on other operators when they decide whether or not to launch,” Burgess, who is also an assistant professor in Environmental Studies and an affiliated faculty member in Economics at the University of Colorado Boulder, said in a press release. “We need a policy that lets satellite operators directly factor in the costs their launches impose on other operators.”

According to the study’s results, an annual fee of $235,000 per satellite would quadruple the value of the satellite industry by 2040.

The tax on orbital use for satellites would be calculated to reflect the cost to the industry of putting another satellite into orbit. This includes the project costs of additional collision risk and space debris production.

“This is an incentive problem more than an engineering problem. What’s key is getting the incentives right,” Akhil Rao, assistant professor of economics at Middlebury College and the paper’s lead author, said in a statement.

“That’s not the same as a launch fee,” Rao said, “Launch fees by themselves can’t induce operators to deorbit their satellites when necessary, and it’s not the launch but the orbiting satellite that causes the damage.”

Such fees would increase over time in order to account for the rising value of cleaner orbits — scarcity begets value, after all.

The model used by the researchers suggests that an optimal fee would increase at a rate of 14% per year, reaching $235,000 per satellite per year by 2040.

Burgess and Rao compared the forecasted impact of orbital-use fees under various scenarios to business as usual (no fees to operate in space) and technological fixes like janitorial satellites and lasers.

The results suggest that an orbital fee introduces an economic incentive that forces operators to think twice before they add another satellite in orbit unless it really adds value.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, these kinds of fees might actually help the satellite industry grow from $600 billion under a business-as-usual scenario to around $3 trillion. According to the researchers, the massive uptake in valuation can be pinned to reduced collisions and collision-related costs.

However, like other forms of taxes, an orbital-use fee would only work if all countries and agents launching satellites would participate in the program. There are now nearly a dozen countries that perform satellite launches and about 30 that own satellites but rely on others to launch them.

But if one country refuses to participate, the whole scheme is dismantled, similar to how a tax haven attracts corporations, leaving their home countries with no revenue.

As such, there are many challenges to this approach but this doesn’t make it any less appealing. Frankly, we need to hit space junk with everything we’ve got; otherwise, we might risk never being able to safely leave this planet and reach our full potential as a space-faring species.

“In other sectors, addressing the Tragedy of the Commons has often been a game of catch-up with substantial social costs. But the relatively young space industry can avoid these costs before they escalate,” Burgess said.

The findings appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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